Editorial: Is There Value To Negative Music Reviews?

Is There Value To Negative Music Reviews?

By Martine Ehrenclou

Respected music industry analyst and critic Bob Lefsetz recently wrote an article that makes a point about the lack of negative music reviews in the media today. “This is not the sixties or the seventies where music criticism is an art form,” he said. “Now it’s all positive all the time.” He adds, “So much music criticism is passé… because reviewers no longer get free product, there are no press junkets, being flown to a gig like in the old days. Today the only thing you get is access, and if you say anything negative, anything at all, you’re shut out.” He also includes, “If I say anything negative I’ll instantly become a pariah, I’ll be inundated with hate on social media.”

Lefsetz’s article is referring to Beyoncé’s new album and how all the reviews are positive except one. He points a finger at music for praising her new release and others, suggesting that they resist writing the truth because they are afraid of online bullies or fear being refused access to artists.

That’s true about being denied access and online bullying but that’s not why I choose not to write negative music reviews. I hand-pick artists who I think are outstanding and generally review their music in a positive light. I don’t believe in negative criticism or judgment of music. There’s no benefit to it. But in my opinion, there’s great benefit to featuring music that’s really good. Music discovery is a thrill and if we can help turn people on to some of it, that feels right to me. We feature music we can get behind and simply pass on music we can’t. That said, we can’t cover all of it as there’s plenty of music we just don’t see or don’t know about.

Lefsetz got me thinking, though. There were two subscribers who criticized us for not writing negative reviews. We were accused of a lack of credibility because of it. We hand-pick what we think is the best blues, rock, and roots music with some jazz and funk thrown in and review albums, performances, and singles in a positive light if we’re moved by them.

Did those subscribers’ comments give me pause? Yes. Did I think about their opinions? Yes. Did I change my stance because of them? No.

Believe it or not, I have been personally attacked for not Including certain artists in my articles about blues, rock, and roots musicians. Not just by one, either. Artists have approached me privately on social media to hurl insults because I didn’t include them or didn’t review one of their albums. Their fans have hopped on the bullying train as well, pummeling our site with a slew of nasty comments.

Did I include those artists as a result of the bullying? No.

Personally, I value reviews of plumbers, electricians, air conditioning companies and the like because I want to hire a professional who has provided good service to others, not someone who has pissed everybody off. Music is entirely different. Music is subjective. We like what we like. How many albums have been slaughtered by critics only to be reviewed positively later on in a different context?

Take Aerosmith for instance. Fans and critics didn’t like their album Draw The Line (1977). However, the album was revived years later because a younger journalist heard their music in a new context. There are plenty of other examples but you get my point.

Much like art, music can be a Rorschach test. We can so easily project our own stuff onto it or hear it based on the mood we’re in. A review is one person’s opinion and their taste might not be the same as mine or yours. Plus, who knows if they woke up on the wrong side of the bed and needed an outlet for their shitty mood and the album to be reviewed was right in front of them.

Even if I were a virtuosic guitar player, I wouldn’t sling mud at another guitarist’s work if I didn’t like it. I’d rather just pass on reviewing their album, single or performance. I’ve done that. I’ve been to concerts only to realize that the band was off their game or the show was not up to their usual standards. I decided not to review. Maybe something happened before the show. Maybe one or two players were sick. Maybe a lot of things—we just don’t know.

Why put energy into negatively evaluating a performance or piece of music that might dissuade some music fans from buying or streaming it and forming their own opinions?

I’d rather cherry-pick great artists or bands to feature who I’m excited about and share them with people. That’s my bailiwick anyway, has been since I was in the 7th grade. Sharing mix tapes with friends was a thrill. Turning people on to new music is really fun. I like to think I have good taste in music artists and choose bands and to feature that stand above the rest.

Spotify and other streaming services do a pretty good job with their algorithms by recommending other bands and artists based on the music you like but there’s nothing like having a trusted friend or loved one saying “Hey, listen up! This is fantastic!”

I refuse to write negative music reviews. It doesn’t feel right. It’s disrespectful to artists. Negative reviews can hurt. Some might not care but I do.

Why?

Because creating music is a gift. I don’t know where it comes from, but we all know that not everyone can do it. If great songwriting were simply a learned skill then more people would be great songwriters. Vocals can be trained but, if you don’t have a good voice to start with, no amount of training is going to get you there. That’s a gift, maybe a spiritual one. Negative music criticism feels mean-spirited, throws shade onto that gift, and contributes to the culture of meanness that seems to rule the modern world. That’s just my opinion.

I deeply respect highly talented musicians and realize that sometimes their albums don’t hit the mark. Maybe their vocals aren’t as good as their instrumentation or songs, or the reverse. They put their heart and soul into their writing, recording, and playing, though. Isn’t that what great blues, rock, and roots music is about? It makes you feel something. The person behind that music felt something too. Why take aim?

My enthusiasm for great music is genuine, not manipulated by publicists, record labels, or the artists, themselves. There’s no hypo machine here. I write about music because I love it. Sometimes I’ve missed true gems because the hundreds of music pitches that arrive in a week are overwhelming and we miss stuff. Music brings me joy. Not all of it, but there’s always a new release that excites me because the music is just so damn good. I get a kick out of sharing it with others.

The straight skinny is this: we’re fans and we cover what turns us on. Some folks are going to complain no matter what we say so we might as well take our lumps for the music we believe in.

I welcome your comments below.

Leave a Comment